FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday at least 20 people across Florida were charged with voter fraud after an investigation conducted by the newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security.
The state is in the processing of arresting these suspects, the majority of whom illegally voted in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, DeSantis said at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
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“They are disqualified from voting because they’ve been convicted of either murder or sexual assault and they do not have the right to vote,” DeSantis said of those charged. “They did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways. That is against the law and now they’re going to pay the price for it.”
The individuals facing third-degree felony election fraud charges across five different counties, including Orange and Hillsborough, could face a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison, he added.
Of the 20 people arrested, three were booked into Orange County jail, including 59-year-old Peter Washington, of Orlando; 52-year-old Michelle Stribling, of Eatonville; and 72-year-old Jerry Foster, of Orlando.
“We will enforce the law and... we do take election security very seriously,” said Attorney General Ashley Moody, whose office helped in the investigation. “We must take action not only to ensure there is a fair and free election in the state but to ensure that the public understands that we are working towards that every day and that they can have every confidence that our elections of Florida will be secure.”
The governor was also joined by Secretary of State Cord Byrd, Department of Law Enforcement Acting Commissioner Mark Glass and Election Crimes and Security Office Director Peter Antonacci.
“This is a special day for those of you who observe elections over the years because this is the day that we begin taking fraud seriously... by assigning consequence to bad acts,” Antonacci said. “You may think that 20 voters is not a lot, but you’re in Broward County and you know that you just elected a person to Congress here, this year, by five votes. And I’m certain that in (that group) of voters, there are plenty of illegal ballots cast. And it’s just awfully unfair... that this sort of thing has been allowed to go on.”
Byrd called “the stakes for rooting out election fraud and malfeasance” extremely high, something the lead elections security office investigators know well.
“In Florida, your vote counts,” Glass said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that those who cannot legally vote never cast a ballot. One of the most important ways we can ensure election integrity is to investigate and arrest those who violate our elections. And anyone out there who’s thinking about engaging in illegal ballot harvesting or other election crimes, don’t do it. Because we’re coming.”
Desmond Meade and Neil Volz, executive and deputy directors at Florida Rights Restoration Coalition respectively, issued a joint statement in response to DeSantis’s announcement on Thursday:
“Amendment 4 is very clear on who is eligible and who is not eligible to vote. When someone registers to vote, it is the responsibility of the state to determine an individual’s eligibility prior to issuing a voter identification card.
Unfortunately, that is not how the process currently works for people impacted by Amendment 4. That’s why we hope the state starts to invest as much energy, if not more, on the front end of the election process as the back end of the process. That means fixing the system to prevent situations like this and spending tax dollars to investigate and prosecute Florida citizens. It is less costly and easier to prevent these situations from happening in the first place.
Currently, the state has no statewide database or one-stop system in place to give returning citizens assurances about their voting eligibility and/or flag those who attempt to register to vote by a genuine mistake before penalties are handed down. Until there is a system in place to assure voter eligibility, we will continue to work with state leaders to improve the system. We believe that anyone who wants to participate in democracy and genuinely believes that they are eligible should not be punished because of the state’s confusing voter system. If Floridians can not rely on the government to verify their eligibility, who can they rely on?”Desmond Meade and Neil Volz, executive and deputy directors at Florida Rights Restoration Coalition
Bill Cowles, the Supervisor of Elections for Orange County, said he was “not made aware” of the arrest announced by FDLE.
According to Cowles, if the county does not receive a packet from the state, then county staff will remain unaware of a person’s conviction status, and so that person will stay on the voter roll.
“Per the Florida Election Code, the Florida Voter Registration database is comparted to Court records compiled by FDLE,” Cowles said. “Once a new or current registered voter is identified with a criminal record, the Florida Division of Elections prepares a packet with the individual’s documentations for the appropriate Supervisor of Elections. When one is received, we are required to notify the voter and give them the opportunity to dispute the information. No response, then we follow the statutes for removing the voter from the voter roll.”
This comes right before Florida’s primary election next week on Aug. 23.
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